Sunday, August 21, 2011

Day 1, Part 4: Potatoes, Quinoa, and the Climate Crisis

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. On our first day, we saw a presentation I had literally waited a year to see. Last year I arrived a day late to Bolivia and missed it, and the listened to everyone talk about how great it was for the rest of the trip. And.... it WAS great! The presentation was made by Eliseo Mamani Alvarez from Fundacion PROINPA. Here is the second part, which focuses on two very important crops, potatoes and quinoa. Please at least read the part about quinoa and learn about the impact of the recent popularity of quinoa in the U.S. and Europe on the Andean people and their land.

Andeans say that it's not a meal without a potato. Bolivian potatoes fall into the subspecies Solanum tuberosum andigena. Potatoes were brought to Spain by the conquistadors in the 1500s and from there they went around the world. Here in Bolivia, the Aymara classify potatoes in three main groups:
  • Imillas - This is the Aymara word for "young woman." Like a young woman, these potatoes are round and sweet. They are cooked, peeled and eaten. The over 100 varieties in this group include: Imilla negra, waycha, wila imilla, imilla blanca, polonia, and sani runa. And as you would already know if you speak a bit of Spanish, they come in a variety of colors.
  • Qh'atys - These potatoes are not round. You cook them and eat them but do not peel them. The legend is that if you peel them they will cry and then they will not produce a good crop the next year. The 80 or so varieties include: Canastilla blanca, chaska zapallo, katari papa, machu wañuchi, sagampaya, and wila waka lajra. They vary greatly in shape.
  • Lukis - These are not simply cooked and eaten. They are made into "chuño" or "tunta," traditional freeze-dried potatoes. The reason they are not directly eaten is because they are very bitter or even spicy and do not taste good unless you eat them in a freeze-dried form. "Luki" means young man. Like a young man, this group is tolerant of the cold. They can withstand the cold and, while they might suffer, they will still produce a crop. Varieties include: Janqo Ajahuiri, Luki Negra, Laram Kaysalla, Queto Luki, Janqo Choque Pitu, and Lunku Ajahuiri.

Chuño is made by leaving the potatoes in the cold during freezing nights and stepping on it to squeeze out the water during the day. You do this for several days until the water is squeezed out and the potato can be stored for several years. This is important in a culture without refrigerators. Tunta are initially made in the same way as chuño but then they are put in bags with cold water and soaked for a month until the color bleaches out and the potato is white.

These two potatoes are used in different dishes and they are very important to the food sovereignty and food security of Andean peasants. Climate change is now wreaking havoc on Andeans' ability to make chuño and tunta because they aren't having enough freezing nights during the winter. (However, they do now get the occasional unexpected freeze during other times of the year. Before, there were never frosts during the potato growing months, from November to May, but now sometimes there are. This is a big problem!)

Today, you can still find a wide variety of wild potato relatives on the edges of fields. They vary in shape, color, size, flowers, leaves, and fruits. Protecting this biodiversity is important in our future ability to breed potatoes that resist emerging climate conditions, pests, and diseases. Already, Bolivia has lost many varieties of potatoes to extinction. There are now efforts to commercialize some of this diversity in order to preserve it. I am skeptical of such efforts, and the information below about quinoa exports to the U.S. and Europe are Exhibit A showing why I'm skeptical.

Another risk is losing the knowledge of the traditional growing methods for potatoes here. Agricultural practices are highly intertwined with religious practices here. Traditionally, August is the month when people are getting ready to plant, offering Pachamama (Mother Earth) coca and alcohol in order to ensure a good harvest. The rainy season used to start around now, but with the climate crisis it comes much later, and the traditional planting calendar is thrown off.

Once the rains do come, peasants will prepare the soil using animal traction or even plowing manually if they don't have an ox team. The man will plow the field, and the woman will follow behind planting the seeds. The woman is a symbol of fertility, so a man would never be the one to plant the seeds.

Each community assigns one person to be the caretaker for the potatoes throughout the season. Just before the harvest, the peasants go to the fields and take up a plant to see if it has had production. They then conduct a ritual to ensure that the rest of the harvest will be good. After a good harvest, there will be a big celebration in the community with traditional costumes with symbolic meanings, dancing, and the caretaker will receive gifts. If there is a bad harvest, then the potato caretaker gets no gifts and he will be in the doghouse with the entire community.

Traditional peasant communities and their rituals are about living together with nature. These communities produce for subsistence, not to make money. Agronomists have had experiences where they have gone to communities and asked why the peasants do not plant more potatoes on extra land available. The peasants reply, "No, we do not need that much. We leave that land where there used to be barley planted and we let the birds come and eat the dropped seeds." Stephen Taranto, the agroecologist who helped plan and guide our trip, said there are often agricultural explanations for the success of these practices in addition to the cultural explanations.

Now, with climate change, there are new pests attacking the potato crop that weren't much of a problem before. As temperatures rise, pests can move up the mountains to higher altitudes than where they existed before. One fear is that producers will deal with unfamiliar new pests by using more pesticides than before.

In particular is a type of potato worm and late blight (the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine). Historically, the potato worm did not go above 3850m in altitude, and in the last 10 years they've been documented at 4000m. Unfortunately, they've expanded into the area with the highest biodiversity of potatoes.

Late blight has been growing up from the valleys into higher altitudes too. It's especially virulent because the rainy season historically started in October but now it begins in the end of December, and then they get a LOT of rain in January and February. Since Bolivia is in the Southern hemisphere, that's the middle of summer, the warmest months. Together, the warmth and moisture make for major blight problems.

Using insecticide and fungicide to deal with these problems is pervasive, but PROINPA promotes a few other methods, like killing the adult worms when the potatoes are harvested so they don't produce, and digging deep trenches in between areas of potatoes so you can catch the worms before they spread from one area to another. Perhaps the most promising method is using a beneficial fungus (Beauveria bassiana) that will kill the worms.

Also, recently, there is much more intense, prolonged hailstorms - and larger hailstones - due to climate change. This can destroy a crop in 30 minutes. I've heard that some of the traditional villages believe this is a punishment for women having abortions. Pat Robertson might agree, but Eliseo says it is due to climate change.

Historically, planting rituals came during August. But with the late start of the rainy season, planting in August can be disastrous. The shift in the rainy season also confuses the timing of the rituals.

There are two main centers of quinoa production. One is near Lake Titicaca in La Paz department. The other is near Uyuni in the department Potosi. The Titicaca quinoa (quinoa dulce, sweet quinoa with smaller grains) is grown for local consumption. The other area grows quinoa real, royal quinoa, or quinoa amarga (bitter quinoa), mostly for export. I've read that some 90% of Bolivia's quinoa is exported. With the high price the overseas markets are willing to pay, Bolivians just can't afford it. Lately they've noticed that the bitter quinoa growing region has been moving north.

Quinoa comes in different colors and forms, both on the plant itself and once the seed is harvested and dried. Remember there are over 3000 varieties. Colors include black, pink, yellow, and white.

Near Lake Titicaca, there is traditional management of quinoa production. They use animal traction and manual labor for plowing and harvesting, respectively. People tend to plant quinoa in rows according to color, but within one row, there might be different varieties within the same color.

After harvest, the quinoa arranged in stacks (kind of in the shape of teepee) with a little top on them to keep the birds and weather away from the seeds. Then once dry, it is beaten with handcrafted tools that look like sticks and it is winnowed to separate the debris from the seeds. The last step is moving the husk from the seeds, which is a lot of work. There are now some machines to do this to make it go faster.

There are many traditional foods made from quinoa, such as quispiña, kaswira, and tortilla de quinoa. Of those, I've eaten quispiña (a sort of fried baked good) and tortilla de quinoa, which is made with egg and GOOD. Usually, I've encountered quinoa in soups in Bolivia. The typically serve soup as a first course for each meal (lunch and/or dinner), and every soup I've ever eaten in Bolivia has been delicious.

The quinoa grown for export - quinoa real (royal quinoa) - is grown in the south. Royal quinoa includes 250 varieties. Almost 100% of it is exported, and Bolivia's the top quinoa exporter in the world. It was previously just exported as a grain, but now there are processed quinoa products that are starting to be exported as well. The export push came from the World Bank, and German, Swiss, and Dutch development agencies. It's related to the gluten intolerance that people in the Global North suffer from and the desire for gluten-free grains for that market.

The parcels where this quinoa is grown are very large by Altiplano standards - 20 to 50 hectares (50 to 125 acres). As you might guess by the large landholdings, this is grown with tractors instead of animal or manual labor.

Because of the high value of exported quinoa, farmers plant and replant quinoa without crop rotations or fallow periods. They are also planting quinoa on more marginal lands. The soil in these areas was poor to begin with. These management practices, plus the climate crisis, are leading to desertification. That is why we are starting to see quinoa migrate north toward soils that have rested and areas that get more precipitation.

In the past, quinoa producers fertilized the land with alpaca and llama manure. But now, because the price of quinoa is so good, there is no land left for grazing for alpacas and llamas. Without the alpacas and llamas, there isn't enough manure for fertilization, so there's in increase in use of chemical fertilizers (which are made from fossil fuels and also degrade the soil and pollute the water).

Another phenomenon happening in the quinoa growing area due to the quinoa export boom is malnutrition among quinoa producers and their families. In the past, most people had 1-2 hectares and most quinoa was for home consumption. Now, people use the money they get from selling quinoa and they buy rice, noodles, crackers, etc. And they hardly eat any quinoa. The quinoa growing area now has the highest malnutrition in Bolivia.

Someone in our group asked whether PROINPA was working with families on the malnutrition issue. Eliseo mentioned that there is a cultural stereotype that native Andean crops are lower class "Indian foods" and not cool and modern like processed food. Thus, they are working with families to try to get them to prepare traditional foods in novel ways, like in a pancake or in a bar, so the children will think they are cool.

I find this extremely, extremely sad that these foods that should be the pride of every indigenous Andean are a source of shame, and that the high status foods are exactly the least nutritious foods. Of course, this is not a phenomenon unique to Bolivia.

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